8. Birmingham Core Skills Partnership
The project consists of four core programmes that work to foster a culture of learning among young children and their families, through motivation and support activities and materials.
They seek to develop strategies to improve core skills in pre-school and school age people, their parents and associated voluntary and community networks, and to emphasise core skills in education and training provision among unemployed and employed adults.
The Partnership aims also to carry forward employers' skills agendas. To enable partners to plan together, to agree activities to be funded, and to follow the progress of those activities and their use of the funding, a company is set up to run these projects.
Background - Problems to be Tackled
- The success of this scheme is partly due to the close relationship between its activities and the core businesses of the participating organisations. An emphasis throughout the Partnership and its work on the importance of changing ways of working has also been a contributory factor. The Partnership's direction and project management have been credible and enthusiastic, while the annual planning of activities against the strategic objectives has made for a flexible and well resourced strategy. Early reluctance on the part of some schools to take part in any of the programmes was overcome through dissemination of the results of pilot projects, which led to significant changes in perceptions of their value.
- Funding agencies should approve programmes rather than projects, and place an emphasis on working across the whole education and training system on broad issues such as core skills, which have an impact on every aspect of partners' activities.
- A clear, focused, but flexible strategy, which includes the creation of structures to deal with all aspects of a partnership's work, is imperative for SRB partnerships. The partnership can be used as a way of facilitating whole system change in partner organisations and should itself become a strategic resource procurement body.
- Community organisations can combine the delivery of lifelong learning, advice and guidance to the disadvantaged groups which need it with other forms of community information, advice and guidance. ICT works in this environment, though literacy and numeracy volunteers are key resources, especially in inner cities.
The project seeks to tackle problems both of attainment and at an institutional level. In relation to the institutional perspective, the project was designed to address the following issues:
- fragmentation of response, where named projects were often supported on a small scale, in ways which were unrelated to one another;
- failure of core and basic skills initiatives to reach certain groups, and areas of the city in the past;
- tendency for 'short-life' funding regimes to have limited impact on mainstream provision and
- tendency for joint working and planning between key agencies to form around short-lived projects, rather than a strategic programme of sustained activity.
The project is set up to be problem-focused, but adaptable. The use of an annual business planning process to decide on investment priorities enables project managers to adapt and change the specific combinations of problems on which they concentrate. Recently, for example, they were able to respond to the Moser Report on core skills, which identified that the scale of need in Birmingham was 17.3 per cent for literacy and 22.9 per cent for numeracy. This creates an estimated market need in excess of 121,000 people. Since there is provision for a maximum of 22,000 people, this introduces a topical focus to expanding participation.
- levels of attainment for literacy and numeracy within the education system were poor;
- drop out rates on training courses were higher than they should have been;
- employers were complaining that core skills levels were inadequate;
- consequently, high levels of resources from mainstream training and education programmes were going into remedial numeracy and literacy activity.
How the Project was Developed
In 1994, when the project concept began to be developed, there was a sense of restlessness and potential crisis among senior officials and leaders in both the Birmingham City Council and the local Training and Enterprise Council - the now Birmingham and Solihull TEC.
In response to the problems outlined above, the chief education officer and the chief executive of the TEC developed a themed bid under SRB 2. In discussion with numeracy and literacy practitioners, there was a feeling that the energy and commitment that was being put into addressing problems of numeracy and literacy attainment seemed to be having little impact. However, practitioners argued that change needed to be led from within, rather than being imposed by external agents.
As a result of this meeting of the perspectives of policy makers and practitioners, a model of the Core Skills Partnership emerged as a mechanism for enhancing the Education Development Plan. The model recognises that core skills are not the responsibility of any one partner, but that measurable improvement both in core skills attainment and the means of change are everyone's interests.
The strategic objectives of the scheme are:
The Partnership works to foster a culture of learning among young children and their families, through motivation and support activities and materials. There is also work to raise literacy and numeracy success levels, and support for out of school learning. Older young people are targeted through mentoring schemes, but crucially through efforts to build core skills into a wide variety of activities. For example, literacy and numeracy are built into the day to day work of youth workers, and the Partnership works to increase the capacity of the training and education providers and other organisations (such as the Probation Service and Modern Apprenticeship providers) that serve this age group to integrate core skills into their programmes.
- to raise the baseline attainment year on year, of children on entry to school and to increase consistency in pre-school interventions across areas and communities;
- to raise the literacy and numeracy attainment levels of young people at school at key intervention points;
- to increase the key skills levels of young people out of school;
- to meet the needs of specific target groups and communities;
- to raise the key skills attainment levels and increase the employability of unemployed individuals through post-school education and training provision; and to develop the key skills of employed individuals in order to enable job retention and encourage career progression.
- to provide support for employers (and their employees) for key skills at work and
- to increase the level of individual commitment to core skills development.
Work to increase participation also forms part of the Partnership's activities. There are employability skills projects for people with disabilities and for disaffected young people, as well as provision of information, support and guidance for, for example, women returners, Bangladeshi adults and homeless young people. These target specific excluded groups and aim to bring them into mainstream provision. At the same time, flexible learning approaches and collaboration among providers to implement ESOL development activities widen participation among adult learners.
Plans to encourage employees to improve literacy and numeracy include the expansion of the key skills thread within the Weekend College (an initiative to open up the FE facilities in Birmingham to weekend use) but focus more on the employer's role. The project will attempt to raise awareness of basic skills among business advisors, as well as developing learning provision within business groups and running seminars which examine the relationship between competitiveness and basic skills at work.
Examples of Activity
Progress in the work with employers has been slower to build up than in other areas of their strategy.
- Raising baseline standards of pre-school children
- Development of BookStart Model to reach 15,000 families per year, ensuring that "marginal" families (travellers, those in hostels & refuges etc.) are included.
- Creating links between various under fives providers in specific locations in order to provide better support to families.
- Raising attainment levels of young people
- A range of targeted interventions at Key Stages 1,2,3 & 4 to change classroom practice, supported by activities including a University of the First Age, and literacy and numeracy summer schools.
- Creating extended learning centres in secondary schools (distance learning in their own time by KS3 pupils).
- Building key skills activities into range of existing youth service activities.
- Using sport and music as routes into engaging 'non traditional' young people into key skills accreditation, linked to emerging New Start strategy.
- Outreach and enhancement to enhance New Deal.
- Raising core skill attainment levels of adults through:
- Widespread use of IT.
- Building core skills activities and understanding into the advice guidance activity of voluntary and community organisations.
- Specific vocational key skills work with disadvantaged groups (e.g. probation service clients, deaf adults, Bangladeshi adults).
- Unlocking employee volunteers as structured form of employee development.
- Work through Trades Unions to meet needs of member employees.
Total project costs: £28.6m of SRB, with further £9.9m of partner contributions.
Outcomes and Achievements
In the mid-term evaluation for the Birmingham SRB Rounds 1 & 2, all stakeholders agreed Partnerships' five major achievements.
The effects of the Partnership's work are clear. For example, at Key Stage 2 SATs, Birmingham's percentage improvement in Maths, English and Science between 1996 and 1997 was twice the national average. Attainment in schools whose children have improved their key skills under this programme has been raised in all subjects. Moreover, the changes in behaviour that the Partnership has encouraged mean that the performance of schools, parents and education professionals against their baseline is improving year on year, and at a significantly greater rate than was the case in the past. Birmingham's improvements in literacy and numeracy are now among the biggest in the country.
- Establishing 'joined-up' ways of working on joint priorities. This has been achieved through the overlapping agency interests at the board level, and the contracting of work through annual activity agreements (linked to the business plan). The activity agreements have identified joint solutions to identified problems.
- Enhanced existing local and national strategies. In part this has followed from the 'joining up' ways of working. It has also meant there has been a very strong emphasis placed on getting better outcomes from existing activity, especially within mainstream agencies.
- Meeting the Core Skills Partnerships' own strategic objectives, which has helped to create a win: win climate within the Partnership.
- Management and administrative processes have been efficient and cost effective. The use of secondees, and the focus on enhancing existing capacity has meant that, with few exceptions, activity has been delivered through existing personnel and systems.
- Enhancing activity that targets under-performing groups (e.g. those under -achieving at school, those disengaged from mainstream training, low skills employees) has meant that a disproportionate number of beneficiaries have come from disadvantaged communities (e.g. ethnic minorities).
Another of the outcomes of the Partnership's work is widespread local dissemination of information: much of the Core Skills Partnership activity is professional updating and capacity building by another name. A premium is actually placed on changing how others approach and work on core skills issues.
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